Part III “Visiting monks give better sermons”
The idea of this proverb (外来的和尚好念经) seems to have originated from an old story from Chinese history.
A Zen Master Mazu Daoyi (709–788 during the Tang dynasty), recorded as the first to start a Buddhism Zen School, was born in Chengdu, Sichuan province. His family name was Ma. His father was a dustpan salesman (dustpan as 簸箕or boji, pronounced in Chinese). Therefore, people just referred to him as Ma Boji instead of his real name. After Ma Daoyi, the son of the dustpan vendor, became Mazu, a Zen Master, he came back to his home city to give a sermon. The news that there was a Zen Master coming suddenly sent the city of Chengdu into a frenzy of excitement.
All the streets were empty as everyone went out to see the Master, but they immediately felt disappointed when they met him. “He was merely the son of Ma Boji, a guy who is not doing any better than most of us;” people muttered to one another, “we watched him grow up when he was still wiping his running nose and wearing open crotch pants. How could he become a Zen master?” Sensing the unenthusiastic reactions from the crowd, the Zen Master sighed deeply, concluding: “Do not come back to your hometown when you become a master–a letdown would be in order!”
Evidently, this Chinese adage has been around for centuries, but people are starting to use it more prolifically today than at any time in the past. It is simply because it’s true and has somewhat revealed a somber side of the culture.
China’s culture, which had historically been on its own for thousands of years, has suddenly begun to embrace the whole world since adopting an Open-Door Policy about 30 some years ago. During the past three decades, people from all over the world started to pour in, together with all kinds of material goods, money, and ideas–far more than in the last 3000 years combined. As a result, this proverb has become a general notion that people can see or feel, if not hear, in their everyday lives.
Time and time again as Chinese people contemplate this notion, they start to realize that it makes sense in many other parts of the society, especially during a time when “less is more” has become “only more is more” as China progresses into consumerism. Everywhere you go, you would notice that all the imported merchandises sell at much higher prices than locally branded ones, although the gaps are shrinking over the years. Most obviously: smartphones, automobiles, designer brands of anything, even food, just to name a few. Sometimes, you could see local products using labels in foreign languages to attract more attention. Other than quality differences between the foreign and domestic makes (which have noticeably narrowed over the years), psychological factors also play an irrefutable role in the modern and trendy Chinese society.
One accepted rule of the game in China is that overseas returnees (“Haigui”, jokingly referred to as “sea turtles” as it’s a Chinese homonym), like anything plated in gold, command several times higher salaries than their local counterparts working in the same positions. As a trend driven by policies, there are all kinds of generous fringe benefits created just to lure those overseas Chinese back to work in China. Foreign teachers and experts who work in any universities or organizations in China often receive far more lucrative offers than their Chinese peers. It is no wonder that millions of parents in China, who can afford it, are willing to shell out their life savings to send their children abroad for education starting as early as elementary school ages. They all have at least one thing on their mind: getting gold-plated from an overseas education, plus some work experiences if possible, to become more valuable.
Are ideas from strangers always better? Not limited to Chinese culture though, those who live in a digital age have all the information at their fingertips. Many would take the “expert advice” to heart such as what to eat, when and how much or to walk exact 10k steps every day faithfully. One day you would read: wash your hands like 50 times a day, or each time you touch a keyboard or a doorknob. The next day you will see a suggestion with solid scientific backings, play in the dirt. There is plenty of conflicting information, even from seemingly authoritative sources, like investment advice in the financial media. Are we becoming cognitively lazy, looking for easy solutions, even when there aren’t clear-cut ones? Where is our common sense? Not that we should shy away from all other sources of knowledge, but how much is suitable for the individual person if not provided on a case-by-case basis?
Before stretching my imagination further, I need to make a disclaimer first. As no more than a passionate reader of the history of the religions, the following are only my own observations and ponderings. How did some spiritual leaders (in general, the one who guides people through the problems and trials of life) become God in one culture, and fail to become one in another, putting aside all the complex theories, historical events, and factors that have appeared in countless scholarly publications?
In the history of China, there were movements for a Confucian Religion (A Chapter in the book: A Short History of Chinese Philosophy by Fung Yu-Lan). In those times, people almost succeeded in making Confucius a God in China, like what the early Christians did to Jesus of Nazareth, more than once, but all failed. The most recent time, in 1915, when the first Constitution of the Republic was drafted, it stated Confucianism as the state religion, then removed it in the later draft. It ended up as the fundamental principle of ethical discipline instead. Did the controversy, at least partially, stem from the fact that Confucius was just a teacher in the eyes and minds of his own countrymen, albeit the most influential one in Chinese history?
Perhaps a human being in flesh and blood, known personally by many of his own people, was merely an earthly figure and could not be envisioned as God in his own country. Could this be why China, with one-fifth of the world’s population and having as ancient a history as other civilizations, has never had a religion of its own? Daoism emerged in China with supernatural beliefs theologically, but you will rarely if ever, meet a Chinese person who understands much of what it is, let alone believes in it and practices it religiously.
Let’s look at this proverb: “a prophet is not without honor, but in his own country.” A Western version, although not as widely cited as the Chinese one, it expresses a consistent message, which could hardly be a coincidence.
Following my chain of thought, another query jumps to my head: Jesus of Nazareth, an outsider to most of his believers around the world but being claimed and accepted as God by them, except in the eyes of Judaism. Is it because Jesus was born Jewish? Or another way of asking this question is: Was it any easier for Jesus to become God in the Western culture because he is a “visiting monk”, as opposed to a “homeboy”, to his followers?
Every culture, no doubt, has their distinctive characteristics. Those traits and attributes shape certain behaviors of people living in that culture, forming a lifestyle that is utterly unique in the world. But once we scratch beneath the surface, we may uncover plenty of similarities among all the mankind. After all, we are—people from the East, West, and anywhere else– a lot more alike by nature than we are different.